You get what you pay for

Posted on April 30, 2013 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

While scanning winning entries in this year’s Top 50 CEO competition, I couldn’t help but be struck by a number of inspiring, intriguing-to-me incongruities. And by a few less inspiring congruities.

For starters, there were the inordinate numbers of incredibly accomplished, clearly driven CEOs—both male and female—who, when asked to cite “your biggest accomplishment,” spoke not about corporate contracts wrested from the voracious jaws of competitors or of virgin commercial territories crushed and conquered, but… “my family.”

And then too, there was what seemed like a more-than-enough-to-constitute-a-trend collection of supposedly ego-centric, ruggedly individualistic titans of business who, when invited to respond to a question about “who, or what has had the most impact on your growth as a business leader” and/or “what motivates you,” answered simply: “my team.”

You might, of course, discount at least some of those answers as a trifle too… well, what-judges-like-to-hear disingenuous. Can the successfully self-made really be self-deprecating too? It seems many can. Most of the CEOs who answered our questionnaire weren’t satisfied with rote, pious platitudes; they offered up personal, sometimes poignant anecdotes about the role their families and teams had played in their own successes.

If all that is big-picture encouraging— it’s nice to hear so many CEOs talking about the importance of finding an appropriate work-life balance—I was less encouraged, though also less surprised, by the knee-jerk responses to another survey question.

“If you were premier of your province, what would be your top three priorities?”

You probably don’t need a divining rod to guess the number one answer in my own unscientific sampling of responses.

“Cut taxes.”

Followed by: “balanced budgets.”

Which many respondents believed could be accomplished—magic wand waved—by butchering bloated bureaucracies (“much of the province’s money could be saved by employing fewer civil servants,” declared one not untypical CEO), eliminating redundancies, amalgamating universities, consolidating health boards, dismantling corporate regulation, tightening employment insurance benefits, cutting (the wrong) corporate handouts, freeing entrepreneurs to be entrepreneurs…

This all could be achieved, of course, while investing in better quality education and health care, improving opportunities for young people, luring tourists, attracting immigrants, protecting the environment, supporting (the right) businesses and investing in infrastructure… not to forget paying down the debt.


We have a disconnect here.

Too many of us—CEO and common folk alike—have bought into the myth you can cut taxes, balance budgets and make the world a better place for our grandchildren’s grandchildren without ever actually having to endure any personal pain.

Taxes are not a penalty; they are the price we pay for the society we live in. Public education. Quality health care. Breathable air. Drivable highways. While there is certainly waste in government, there’s not nearly enough to pay for the free ride we want.

Like society generally, businesses benefit from—and should help pay for— that healthy, educated workforce as well as more tangible assets like modern infrastructure.

The CEOs who responded to our question aren’t alone in missing—perhaps willfully—that point.

My Atlantic Business columnistcolleague John Risley—can I really call a man who is president of the holding company that operates Canada’s largest vertically-integrated seafood company, who hobnobs with global corporate movers and shakers as a member of the World Presidents’ Organization, is a graduate of Harvard University Presidents’ Program in Leadership and whose current pocket change likely eclipses more than a few lifetimes’ worth of my own lesser-mortal earnings—my “colleague”? But I digress— Mr. Risley recently wrote a column in these pages touting the pressing need for infrastructure investment in Canada.

“China is our competitor,” he wrote. “They want to be better than us in everything we do and believe we are good at, from education to health care to the technology sector.” The Chinese “laid the foundation” for their recent exponential economic explosion by investing “hundreds of billions of dollars” in “infrastructure in all its various forms,” Risley declared, and we need to do the same.

Intriguingly, Risley never once mentioned how any of this massive public investment will be paid for. And he certainly didn’t suggest raising taxes to pay for it.

Like many of his fellow CEOs, Risley seems to believe there’s a magic wand we can wave over the public sector.

There isn’t. No real surprise there either.

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